The Potential Effects of Educational Technology on the Jewish Learning Environment

  • by: Aharon Frazer

Aharon Frazer is a programmer at WebYeshiva.com, a new online Torah learning environment, and a website builder for sites dealing with Jewish education. He is studying at Yeshivat Har Etzion, where he also teaches.

 

Project Description

This project outlines possibilities for use of educational technology in the context of Jewish education. Particular attention is given to areas where the orientation of the educational environment can be shifted to a more student-centric model, and the potential advantages of such a model are explored. The internet, in particular, is identified as a technology which facilitates such an orientation. The author suggests strategies for implementation.

Contents

 

Abstract

 

Introduction

 

I. The Impact of Technology on the General Educational Environment

A. The changing role of the teacher

B. The role of the group

C. The empowerment of the student

D. Media Richness

E. Teaching Information Literacy

 

II. Survey of Currently Available Jewish Educational Technology
A. Searchable Text Databases

B. Online Educational Communities

C. Packaged Multimedia Lessons

D. Word Processors as Text-Study Tools

 

III. Suggested Improvements to Jewish Educational Technology Products

A. Diverse online student communities

B. Technologically enabled, open-ended lessons

C. Word Processors as Flexible Text Displays

 

IV. Further Treatment of Issues Specific to Jewish Education

A. The Sacred Nature Of The Text

B. Sequential and Random Access and Information Literacy

C. Intertextuality

D. The Nature Of Jewish Learning As Discussion

E. Openness To Outside Value Systems

F. Group Work, Online Communities, And Denominational Lines

G. Democracy, Authority, And The Roles Of The Teacher And Student

Summary

Afterword

Bibliography

 

Abstract

This project examines the possibility of improving the learning environment through the use of educational technology. It explores current trends in general education and considers how they could be applied to Jewish education. The author’s professional experience is in the design of online educational systems for collaborative learning. Many of the considerations which he raises are important for both the design of educational software as well as the selection, by educators, of appropriate educational software solution to meet their goals.

The paper distinguishes between the use of technology in narrow, local contexts, designed to address particular problems, and the use of technology on a wider scope in order to deliberately change the character of the learning environment. The author’s primary interest is in the latter. He explores the characteristics which institutions with effectively implemented educational technology tend to manifest.

Several important trends are discussed. The author notes that the teacher’s role seems to be shifting, from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side”. He explains that lessons are increasingly capable of being tailored to each student, and the student is increasingly controlling the pace, content, and objectives of his studies. He identifies new classes of skills, such as “information literacy”, which are today being deemed worthy of explicit treatment. He explores how to bring these changes to Jewish education.

Currently available Jewish educational technology is also surveyed, if only in broad strokes. The author identifies products which go beyond addressing a particular detail and begin to directly impact the character of the learning environment. He shows that while some such products do exist, there is still much room for improvement in this area.

The central reform proposed in the paper is the shift to more open learning environments. The openness of the learning environment is the extent to which students have control of the learning process. It is argued that this encourages students to take initiative and to develop a positive attitude towards learning. It also involves changes in the role of the teacher and the character of the educational institution.

The author considers the broader ramifications of these changes on the culture of the educational institution. He argues that an increasingly democratic, less authoritarian institution will result as control is shifted to the hands of the students. He also notes that the level of control over what material students access may decline significantly. While conceding that these may be viewed as drawbacks, he argues that they can have a positive impact on the learning environment, increasing student motivation and sophistication.

Special consideration is given to the compatibility of such an open environment with the traditional and even doctrinaire nature of religious education. The threats which such a liberal style may pose to the system of halakhic authority, reverence for sacred texts, and deference to Torah scholars is treated. The author defends his opinion that the benefits of an open environment outweigh the drawbacks. He also asserts that such a liberal environment is, to a great degree, an embodiment of genuine ideal native to Judaism, not an artificial marriage between two incompatible constructs.

The paper presents practical suggestions for implementing such an educational environment. It proposes several specific uses of technology in the specific context of Jewish education. The use of online student communities is recommended as a means of encouraging dialogue between diverse Jews. The preparation of flexible, multimedia lessons is recommended as a means of accommodating multiple intelligences and visual or auditory of subject matter. The use of the word processor to make reading into a more active process is also discussed. All of these are viewed as changes which can create a fundamental shift in the character of learning, not just provide a bit of added value.

Introduction

In my short experience in the educational technology field, I have already worked on the creation of two online educational resources. I have learned that the creation of a new educational tool is far more time consuming than one might think. Defining the objectives and functional details of something which exists only in one’s mind is very difficult. One must struggle to imagine all of the ramifications of each detail of this vast, almost living entity which one wishes to create. That difficulty is compounded when one works in a committee.

I believe that much of the same difficulty which affects product designers and developers also plagues educators and educational institutions. There are a myriad of different ways in which technology can be used in education. Funding for educational technology is available to many schools. Technology promises many educational benefits. Despite all this, many educators do not have a clear sense of what can be done with computers, or what is worth doing with them.

In part, this problem is due to the enormity and complexity of the field. Too often, the details become the focus. Rather than think in broad, theoretical terms, educators become sidetracked looking at the details of this or that product. To apply technology effectively, schools need to first ask more fundamental questions about how technology will impact the educational environment.

Technology shoppers often overlook the impact of technologies on the overall climate of the learning environment. We are often limited by our experience, and have difficulty to imagine learning taking place outside the familiar classroom and its culture. This is particularly unfortunate, because technology offers the potential to create a wide array of new educational contexts. Many of the environmental shortcomings of the contemporary classroom could be remedied by technology.  In order to accomplish this, however, we must look for technology which has real positive ramifications for the structure of the learning environment.

This issue is particularly acute in the field of Jewish education. The current learning environment in Jewish schools is anything but accidental. It reflects certain religious values, and certain societal values of Jewish community. Jewish schools typically take a great interest in the character development of the individual, and thus their educational environment is tailored to foster spiritual and personal development. Among the key components of this environment are many which may seem antithetical to technology, such as human interaction with religious role models, or a strong emphasis on maintaining the traditions of the past. Will the use of computers diminish the human component of education? Will enthusiasm for modern technology diminish the respect for ancient tradition? How will the teacher-student relationship change as technology assumes a central role in the classroom Jewish educators, in particular, need to ask these types questions when considering the impact of educational technology on their students.

This paper will explore ways in which technology can positively impact the Jewish learning environment. We will present impressions garnered from general education, and attempt to apply them to the specific field of Jewish education. Special attention will be devoted to the unique character of the Jewish classroom.

Particular trends noted in general education will include:

o            The Changing Role of the Teacher

o            The Changing Role of the Student

o            The Changing Role of the Group

o            Media Richness

o            Information Literacy

Developing these broad themes further, the paper will address the impact of technology on:

o            The nature of Jewish learning as discussion

o            The Physical Care of the Religious Text

o            Intertextuality – The Study of Diverse Inter-Related Texts

o            Providing Context for Disjointed Citations

Special attention will be given to issues of communal structure and orientation, particularly those of concern to the Orthodox community.

o            Educating For or Against Community and Sectarian Identity

o            Intellectual Democracy vs. Authoritarianism

o            Openness to Outside Value Systems

o            Traditionalism vs. Progressivism

As these issues are especially complex and critical, an effort will be made to present historical and philosophical background in order to justify the paper’s recommendations.

In addition to treating these issues on a theoretical level, we will present some practical suggestions of how technology can effectively be applied to Jewish  education. We will discuss types of online student communities, computer-aided lessons, and computer-presented texts which embody the ideas presented in the earlier portions of the paper. This section is included only to provide practical examples to complement the otherwise abstract content of the paper. It is by no means exhaustive, and many important aspects of a practical technology implementation are not discussed. In particular, while professional development is a critical component of any application of technology within schools, it more of a technical consideration than a theoretical one, and therefore will not be treated in this paper.

I. The Impact of Technology on the General Educational Environment

To begin, let us examine the impact which technology has already had on educational environments in general. The trends which we identify here will help us better understand what challenges technology poses for Jewish education.

Central to all of the changes is the shift to increasingly open learning environments (OLE’s). The openness of the learning environment is the extent to which the student is in control of the educational activity. Depending on the extent of openness, students may control the pace, order, focus, or even goals of the lesson. Among the benefits ascribed to such environments are increased student enthusiasm, the ability to meet unique needs of individuals, and the possibility to incorporate a wide array of materials in the lesson.

Many different technological aids are currently being used in general education to create open learning environments. In particular, the internet, with its seemingly endless supply of information on every conceivable topic, is a core component of many OLE’s. Often, educators incorporate online material from a wide array of sources with their own original material.

The increasing ubiquity of OLE’s raises several issues, which have already been noted by general educators, and which are pertinent to Jewish Education. OLE’s are changing the role of both the teacher and the student, and altering the character of group learning as well. They are also introducing a much wider array of media into the typical lesson – from audio and video to three-dimensional modeling and advanced mathematical capabilities. As information proliferates, the very notion of literacy is being redefined to include a much greater skill set, including the ability to navigate and analyze diverse information resources. We will now examine each of these issues individually. Our specific goal will be to identify the relevance of these issues for Jewish education.

A. The changing role of the teacher

In the past, teachers were the student’s main source of information. Their primary responsibility was to transmit data to the students. This role stemmed from a reality in which information was relatively scarce, and was not accessible to students unless presented by the teacher.

Today, many technologies are available for use as information repositories. The internet, an online school library, a CD-ROM, or lecture videos can all serve this function. Learning environments in which such information resources are prominent allow the teacher to adopt a new role.

As raw information becomes more abundant, the role of the teacher as the source of facts begins to change. The teacher can assume a different posture. This can be characterized as “partner in exploring information”, although the relationship does not have to be one of equals. Dr. William Graves discusses this theme at length, in his article, “New Relationships In E-Learning And Learning Centricity[1]”, discusses this new role of the teacher:

Explaining his uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time, hockey star Wayne Gretzky gave us the concept of “skating to where the puck will be.”  This discussion, which responds to an invitation to address the issue of “engaging and supporting faculty,” is about skating to where the future will be for higher education.  That future may not be where the faculty would like the puck to be – an instructor-centric puck.  Technological forces of change are moving the puck in a more transformational and disruptive trajectory than many instructors might wish.  Indeed, the convenience of Web-based access to learning opportunities and the competitive advantages that can result from that convenience are already propelling the puck along a path that is more learner-centric than instructor-centric.  The opportunity, however, is to converge these potentially divergent paths by working with the faculty to plan a learning-centric path designed to achieve the social, cultural, and economic benefits that should be the goals of postsecondary education and training.  Supporting faculty, then, must be understood to mean helping instructors adapt the Internet revolution in human communication and resource sharing to increase the learning opportunities offered by their institutions and the actual learning that results from those opportunities – learning productivity.

Graves, then, advocates training higher education’s teachers properly in order to help them make the most of the new opportunities provided by emerging technologies. While his context is higher education, his thesis is relevant to all educational stages. As the environment around us changes, educators at all levels need help adapting to the inevitable change in their role. They will all, to one degree or another, see the role of information repository be filled by technology, and need to emphasize other aspects of their own function. The era of “teacher as database” will end at all levels, as the computer fills this niche.

Such a change can free a teacher of much of the tedium associated with education, and allow him to focus on more substantive matters. The teacher’s main contribution in an information-saturated world can be providing the student with analysis, judgment, and critical thinking. The teacher can help the student learn to analyze information from diverse and disparate sources, and to evaluate the credibility of different arguments which he encounters. The confrontational quality of the teacher-student relationship can be shifted to one of teamwork and cooperation.

John G. Watson outlines this new role in his article, “Educational Technology: A necessity for the 21st Century — Why The Delay?[2]”:

American classrooms are being transformed as the roles of teachers and students begin to shift. For the teacher, the evolving role encompasses individual student assessment and planning to maximize learning potential–a very time consuming, yet important task. Students are taking more responsibility for specifying and initiating some of the learning tasks, including team-oriented investigation. A new pedagogy, supported by a set of widespread classroom practices, is emerging that encourages individual and small group investigation of student-generated questions. The teacher becomes a consultant, guide and facilitator as students seek answers and develop skills. As a mechanism of accomplishing these tasks, technology becomes a most important asset.

In order for teachers to do adopt such an approach, they need to possess the relevant analytical skills themselves. Alison Carr-Chellman and Dean Dyer emphasize the need for educators to develop a “critical consciousness” in order to work effectively in technology-based learning environments. They develop this theme in an article entitled “The Pain and Ecstasy: Pre-service Teacher Perceptions On Changing Teacher Roles and Technology[3]”:

In order to prepare teachers to move towards meaningful and powerful uses of technology, we must help them to develop a critical consciousness. Critical consciousness “refers to the way we see ourselves in relation to knowledge and power in society… and to the way we act in school and daily life to reproduce or to transform our conditions”(Shor 1992 p129). If pre-service teachers are not encouraged to critically examine their role as teachers and how that role influences and is influenced by the educational system they are part of, then they will be unable to think outside of the current ways of being and doing that pervade our schools. Therefore, as teacher educators, it is our responsibility to introduce and cultivate critical consciousness in future teachers….

Developing a critical consciousness allows one to examine the world around them in such a way as to reveal the power structures that influence our daily lives. Some power structures are more easily seen than others. We are familiar with issues of patriarchy and capitalism, but how often do we stop to think about how these systems of relationships really impact our lives? Educational systems are not immune to power structures. Teachers, administrators, and students all exist within a web of power relationships. As educators, we need to make sure that we are encouraging relationships that are just and equitable. In order to affect change, we must first know how the current systems work together to maintain the status quo.

The shift which Carr-Chellman and Dyer identify can be viewed as a sort of mechanization and industrialization of the educational system. As machines become effective at performing some of the rote tasks, the human being’s energy is focused on the thinking, creative tasks. The storage and retrieval of information is left to the computer, while the analysis is the contribution of the teacher.

This new role, outlined by the various authors cited above, is at loggerheads with the traditional role of the Jewish educator in particular. More so than in general education, the Jewish educator often assumes the position of the “sage on the stage”. The religious authority held by teachers of religious material derives from the presumption (whether justified or not) that their religious scholarship places them in a completely different class than the student. In many schools, students are encouraged to accord to the teachers all manner of respect appropriate for a Torah scholar – to rise when they enter the room, to address them in the third person, and to consult them on practical matters of religious observance, for instance. A case may certainly be made that a different mode of teacher-student interaction is appropriate today, or that the role can be a synthesis of the two extremes described, but in any event the issue warrants explicit treatment, and will be treated later in this paper.

B. The role of the group

One negative stereotype of the computer user is that of the antisocial individual who is more at home with machines than with other human beings. Many are concerned that educational technology might hinder healthy social maturation. Particularly at younger ages, students need human interaction with peers to foster healthy development of social and interpersonal skills. When considering the impact of technology on the learning environment, many have raised the concern of how to use technology to help, rather than harm, such development.

Communication and conferencing technology can be used to improve student social development, rather than hinder it. For instance, students can correspond with people their own age in areas where major world news is breaking. They can learn a language or the history of a country, and then meet people for whom that dry material is part of real life. They can meet people with different backgrounds and opinions.

In addition, many computer-based educational projects lend themselves to group work. Teams of students can work together towards a goal, learning social and teamwork skills. The flexible and modifiable nature of computer-created documents facilitates cooperation between multiple contributors.

Dee Dickenson explains the advantages of cooperative learning. In her report, Positive Trends in Learning: Meeting the Needs of a Rapidly Changing World[4], she writes:

The impressive research done on this educational strategy indicates that when students learn together in pairs or in small groups, learning is faster, there is greater retention, and students feel more positive about the learning process. Cooperative learning enhances children’s ability to construct knowledge as they engage in discovering new ideas with each other. In addition, it enhances students’ self-esteem and helps teachers with classroom management. Its value has resulted in widespread use throughout the country, and it has become a standard part of most pre-service training. It may become a unifying element in school reform.

Watson[5] cites studies which found that “Computer-based learning leads to greater student cooperation, sharing and helping behaviors, thus preparing students for an economy that values and requires teamwork.” As he suggests, the type of collaborative work which students experience through educational technology is very similar to the tasks which they will ultimately perform in the workplace and in adult life in general. By adapting the learning environment to more closely parallel the real world, we are better able to prepare students to face that world.

This type of group learning seems welcome in the Jewish classroom. Cooperation and teamwork are both virtues which Jewish teachers already encourage in their students.

C. The empowerment of the student

Traditional educational environments impart to students a mixed message about their relationship to knowledge and to their teachers. While the schools’ stated goal is to help turn a young person into a functionary who can act effectively on his/her own, they consistently set a tone that the teacher is “in charge” and the student is “subservient”. This is obviously necessary to a degree – the student does need to follow the teacher’s guidance to master the material. However, the possibility to increase the empowerment of the student is tempting. Watson[6] reports evidence that “Technology has a positive effect on student attitudes towards learning and on students’ self concept. This is particularly true when technology allows the students to help direct their own learning.”

The internet, in particular, provides this opportunity. The vast resource of information on almost any possible topic makes it possible for students to pursue any matter of interest to them, in an autonomous manner. Rather than squelching a child’s interests, a teacher can now help the child pursue them. In the past, this would have required the teacher to have specialized knowledge of an infinite number of disciplines. Today, however, the teacher can easily direct the student to a place where he can find the information which interests him.

Simon Housego and Mark Freeman discuss this theme at length in their article, “Case studies: Integrating the use of web based learning systems into student learning[7]”. They draw a critical distinction between technology-based “learning activities”, where students take initiative, and “learning resources”, which impart information to passive students.

Biggs (1999a) provides a comprehensive discussion of how a learning environment can be transformed to achieve quality outcomes. A critical component in this transformation is a transition from teacher centred practice to student centred since Trigwell & Prosser (1998) found the latter were more likely to encourage students to take a deep approach to learning. They describe such teaching as desiring changed conceptions for students rather than as information transmission to students. . . .The transition from teacher centred practice, where student learning is seen as a result of what the teacher does, to a student centred practice where student learning occurs as a result of what the student does, is central to Biggs’ model. In our opinion it is the most important change that academics must make to achieve most effective use of web based learning systems….

For Biggs, the academics who are most likely to promote effective student learning are those whose views of learning is that “meaning is not imposed or transmitted by direct instruction, but is created by the students’ learning activities” (1999a). These students do. With this view of student learning, the distinction between a learning resource and a learning activity becomes very clear. Putting lecture notes online (a learning resource) cannot be expected to improve student learning, a result in line with Clark (1983, 1994).

Students also respond positively to direct exposure to the real world, as opposed to a contrived educational replica thereof. Technology is part of the real-world in which students and adult society both function. Using the same software as a child which adults use in the workplace helps make learning seem much more genuine and relevant. Students can sense whether they are doing a “watered down” version of a subject, or the “real thing”, and many technologies used in the “real thing” can be made accessible to children too. A student can use the same software a real accountant would use for mathematical calculations, the same online resource a real doctor would for information about biology, and the like. This gives students a sense that their studies are relevant to the real world around them.  The distinction between the learning environment and real life can be erased.

Empowering the student in these ways is related to the changing role of the teacher detailed earlier, and is fraught with many of the same issues. For the Jewish educator, empowerment cannot be viewed with unmitigated enthusiasm. Empowerment is not merely a way to increase student motivation. It is a fundamental shift in the student’s relationship with the teacher and the subject matter. It strengthens personal identity and self-confidence at the expense of central authority.

D. Media Richness

The real world is very rich. It is full of color, life, and action. Unfortunately, the traditional classroom has not always mirrored this vitality. A learning environment where technology is used properly can better reflect the rich sensory experience of life.

Some material simply cannot be imparted effectively through speech or writing. Schools have always recognized this and provided laboratories or other “hands-on” facilities for some subjects. Technology can be used to make similar capabilities available to other subjects. The learning environment can be made more stimulating in this manner.

However, these benefits do not come without a price. One particular concern is that the media can obscure and supplant the message. As we increasingly rely on technology’s ability to provide sensory stimulation, we may damage students’ ability to appreciate the meaning present in ordinary text. Much research has already been done about the effects of television in this respect.

Another related concern is that we may be teaching our students an obsession with the new and the innovative. Judaism is in many senses both traditional and progressive – it attempts to learn from the past, while working towards the future. Care needs to be taken not to upset the delicate balance between enthusiasm for the future and for change and reverence for the past and its traditions. Students should not come to think that any generation which did not have the technological advantages which they do must have been backward and ignorant.

E. Teaching Information Literacy

In “The Changing Role of School Librarians in the Age of Technology[8]”, Allen Brown and Corey Laverty introduce a concept they call “information literacy”.

The concept of literacy has evolved from basic abilities to read and write to include computer literacy to the broader idea of information literacy. An information-literate person is able to read, write, and use computer-based tools for finding and applying information to solve problems, to make decisions, and to learn. Information literacy is a combination of knowledge and skills essential to success in an information-rich society. It involves the analysis of an information need, recognition of resource types, evaluation of access tools, awareness of search strategy, and interpretation and assessment of findings. Information literacy requires both thinking and doing. We need to know how, but more importantly, we must first know why….

The concept of information literacy is now coupled with the notion of “learning to learn”. The information society is evolving into a knowledge society where learning on the job will become commonplace and a fundamental requirement. Educators must recognize that information literacy should be developed from an early age because it is a complex process and the real demands of information retrieval are generally hidden from the classroom teacher or librarian (Laverty, 1998). There are several prerequisites for success in fostering information literacy (IL):

o       introduce the concept of IL early on in the program

o       explicitly state IL objectives for assignments

o       link objectives to a task involving critical thinking

o       ensure the IL-related task is part of the regular instruction within class time

o       design assignments in partnership with a librarian to ensure resources meet expectations

o       have a librarian provide appropriate instruction within class time

o       ask students to record their research methodology

o       explicitly assess the research process

o       reflect on the learning process after the assignment is complete

More than just teaching how to use a computer on a technical level, then, we must teach students cognitive methodologies for working effectively with technology.

Jewish educators should take particular interest in this issue. In this particular area, Jewish education seems to have been a step ahead of general education. Much of traditional Jewish education is already geared to a certain brand of information literacy. Students are trained to compare and analyze many different texts, from different styles, and of different genres. A significant part of Talmud education, for instance, is learning how to read the Talmud and commentaries. More than simple literacy, this expression is colloquially used to imply understanding how to ascertain the full extent of a discussion spanning multiple books and generations – who said what, how did the various authors differ, and why.

These types of skills have typically been difficult to teach. The complex inter-relations of commentaries, the bibliographic skills, and the understanding of the particular style of each text have remained elusive to many students. It is likely that educational technology can make it somewhat easier to teach students these matters.

We have seen several trends which are characteristic of technologically enabled learning environments. We have singled out issues regarding student, teacher, and group roles, as well as the notions of media-richness and information literacy, as topics of particular interest and relevance to Jewish educators. These will be our primary interests in the coming sections of the paper.

II. Survey of Currently Available Jewish Educational Technology

We will now consider some of the available technologies designed specifically for Jewish education, in light of the considerations outlined above. While some do address some of the issues we have mentioned, we will see that there is still much room for innovation and improvement. The considerations which should guide that improvement, based on those raised above, will be discussed in the next section.

While the number of Jewish educational products available is somewhat limited, there are several quality products and services currently available. Most do not have a significant impact on the learning environment per se. However, there are some which can, if used properly, have a significant effect on the environment.

A. Searchable Text Databases

Searchable text databases, such as those from Bar Ilan, DBS, or other vendors, can change the way in which we relate to text. They allow students to gain access to texts which would otherwise remain shrouded in obscurity. The ability to cut and paste text into word processor documents and to edit it changes reading from a passive activity to an active one. Students can easily compile material on a given subject, then add their impressions and thoughts.

These products change both the teacher’s and the students’ role. The student is empowered to search for information on his own, and the teacher’s role as the sole source of information is redefined.

B. Online Educational Communities

Many different online communities focused on Jewish education already exist. They range from email discussion lists to formal classes. Some also have an offline component. These include the Lookstein Center, the Jewish Agency, and Jewish Youth Professionals, to name a few. Most of these communities, however, are targeted at adults. They offer informal discussion about Jewish education.

These communities, while technologically simple, have a significant social impact. They are beginning to weaken institutional and factional loyalties in favor of a more liberal, open exchange between educators. This is significant in its own right, but is even more significant because the potential to implement a similar system for use by students is apparent. A discussion group of diverse membership could have far-reaching effects on students. Students do, of course, already participate in a wide variety of non-educational chat rooms, and some also participate in educational ones such as the Jewish Agency’s “Bonim Olam Yehudi”. More communities of this type would be beneficial.

Care should be taken to model these communities’ character after the many focused, intelligent online communities already available on the internet. In this type of environment, the primary allegiance is to the subject matter, rather than to the particular individual or institution. This facilitates a frank, productive discussion between an eclectic group of participants.

While the current communities function as peripheral adjuncts to “brick and mortar” institutions, the possibility that such loosely-knit groups could some day become the more central locus of education is interesting. Group work of this type, as alluded to earlier, could help to build mutual understanding and respect between Jews who would not otherwise meet, because of geographical or denominational factors. The greater the focus on the subject matter in such communities, the less significance will accorded to denomination and background.

C. Packaged Multimedia Lessons

Many multimedia lessons are available today, from a wide variety of vendors including Artscroll, JEMM, Gesher, and others. Each product generally covers a fairly large block of material (Torah reading skills, a tractate of Talmud, a biblical book, or a holiday, for instance). Whilst the investment needed to create these products is relatively high, each product includes a massive amount of content, and can be reused many times. To some degree, these factors offset the initial production costs.

These products introduce direct and deliberate innovation to the educational environment. They empower the student to control his learning autonomously, as discussed in the previous section of this paper. They also incorporate a wide range of media in addition to text.

The products differ widely, each occupying a different place on the continuum between “technologically enhanced book” and “annotated movie”. However, they do share some common characteristics:

o                 Student control of the pace of the learning process

o                 Student control of the path followed through the given material

o                 Flexibility – a wide enough set of tools is given so as to make the product suited for different types of users

o                 Intelligent use of both audiovisual and textual material

Gesher, for instance, markets a CD on the Gideon story. This product includes the written text and commentaries, audio of the text being read, relevant geographical, historical, and archaeological material, study activities, and much more. Almost all imaginable pertinent material is included, and made easily accessible to the student. Images, audio, and video, are used where appropriate.

The main drawback of most of these is that they are closed products. Each product is a pre-packaged unit on particular material; teachers cannot dismantle the product and combine it with their own content. Only the material which the publishers included is made available to the students – no outside resources are incorporated. This limits the extent to which they can be considered truly “open”. While the student certainly has full control of his learning process, the pool of material at his disposal, while large, is finite. These products could benefit from the incorporation of online components, and some vendors have already planned to include such functionality in future releases.

On the other hand, one must recognize that the closed nature of these products is also their strength. No effective learning environment can be completely open. An environment wherein students are free to explore whatever they want, with no guidance or focus, is educational anarchy. If we really wanted such an environment, we could simply close our educational institutions and allow children to roam the streets and pursue their own curiosity. Assuming we do not favor such an approach, we create educational contexts in order to focus students interest on particular topics.

Many of the CD’s mentioned provide a wide range of material on an individual topic. While they do not allow the student unlimited freedom, they do allow him virtually unlimited freedom within the subject at hand. This may really be the critical test of open learning environments – are they open within a defined subject, or are they completely open, with no subject defined at all? While we have argued in favor of openness, it can certainly be posited that openness to the point of obscuring the overall subject is detrimental rather than beneficial.

A student may approach the Gideon story, for instance, from the perspective of textual analysis, or from a visual or historical orientation, and will in any event find ample material to sustain and reward his interest. By contrast to an online lesson which, if poorly designed, could allow the student to drift aimlessly away from the lesson’s topic, these products are inherently focused because they are delivered on closed media.

(In this context it is worthwhile to mention another solution which addresses the same issue. Jecc.org provides several online lessons which they call ‘WebQuests[9]’. They define this term as follows:

A WebQuest is an inquiry-oriented activity in which most or all of the information used by learners is drawn from the Web. WebQuests are designed to use learners’ time well, to focus on using information rather than looking for it, and to support learners’ thinking at the levels of analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

With a WebQuest, students are provided with a measure of guidance and focus, within which they are encouraged to show initiative and creativity. This allows them to benefit from a balance of openness and focus, similar to that provided by the multimedia CD’s.)

These products offer both the benefits and the drawbacks inherent in their heavy use of multimedia. They are visually appealing, even riveting. Some might raise the concern that their visual appeal could distract students from their actual content. These products also offer many benefits similar to the text databases discussed above. They afford the student a great degree of freedom to explore material on his own.

D. Word Processors as Text-Study Tools

In addition to the categories mentioned above, there are of course a large number of Hebrew word processors. While these do not inherently change the learning environment, they can, when utilized effectively, have a major impact on the way students relate to texts.[10]

The word processor is an excellent tool both for empowering students and for helping them develop information literacy. It can be used to transform the passive reading process into an active process of text analysis. A student can format, punctuate, and organize the text as he reads it, and can easily organize multiple, related texts in a variety of ways.

Unlike the other products mentioned above, word-processors will have little educational benefit ‘off the shelf’. The educator must give the students creative assignments which will capitalize on the potential of this tool. Examples of how this can be done will be presented below.

We have discussed available text databases, online communities, and word processors, as they impact the learning environment. Text databases can change teacher and student roles, online communities can facilitate group work, multimedia CD’s offer the benefits and drawbacks inherent in graphics and video, and word processors can be used to teach information literacy and to make text reading a more engaging, active process.

III. Suggested Improvements to Jewish Educational Technology Products

This section explore several ways which the classes of products discussed in the previous section could be improved upon. As text databases are a relatively clear-cut and defined product class, we will not recommend any improvements to it. We will address each of the other three classes of product, presenting suggestions for how they could be further developed. We will draw on the theoretical background established in the first section of the paper.

A. Diverse online student communities

One application of technology which I think could be very effective is an online student community. By their nature, such a community would have much more diverse membership than any one school could. Such communities could be organized around a particular assignment or project, or could be ongoing over the course of many years. The main contribution of such communities, in addition to information, would be mutual understanding and an exposure to a broad range of perspectives. I think this could be particularly helpful for building cooperation and solidarity between different sectors of the Jewish population, and Jews in different countries.

In my opinion, this type of community would probably have the greatest impact on the orthodox community, since it is the most isolated from Jews of other denominations. My personal opinion is that opening the community up a bit to other Jews would be a very welcome change. Especially given the nature of the internet, I think that some of the ordinary concerns which may deter such interaction may be mitigated.

The internet already has a culture of focused intellectual exchange between diverse people. Whereas the conventional wisdom in the offline world is “don’t talk to strangers”, the conventional online wisdom is “do talk to strangers, but don’t say anything unsubstantiated or off the topic.” The cultural norm is to disclaim all subjective or irrelevant material, and to stick primarily to pertinent facts. This prevents discussions from deteriorating into either factional politics or preaching. This characterization is especially true of intellectually oriented online communities.

One corollary to this is the democratic nature of the discussion. If only because of the relative anonymity of all parties to a discussion, there is little regard for credentials or authority. People are judged primarily on the content of their statements. While some might not see this as  positive characteristic, I feel that it fosters a far more open and frank exchange of ideas. Furthermore, even if some do not like them, these shifts are a reality in the actual world. By incorporating them into education, we prepare the student for the reality which exists. Even those who may dislike the “new order” should therefore embrace this educational approach, if only to prepare their students for what they view as a harsh reality.

Of course, this type of idyllic characterization is not true of all online communities. There are many in which the subject matter is not intelligent, the focus is not on substance, and the results are not productive. Still, there are many focused groups on a wide array of topics which do manage to maintain this type of character.

B. Technologically enabled, open-ended lessons

Another technological application  which could have great value to Jewish educators is the open-ended lessonLessons of this type are similar to the multimedia CD’s and WebQuests discussed in the previous section. They provide similar benefits, and have similar drawbacks. The specific technology used can vary widely, and need not be specifically a CD or the web. The important characteristic is the ability of students to customize the lesson, in terms of pace, depth, format, and even goal. I think this type of lesson could be particularly helpful to Talmud study, a notoriously difficult and dry subject. Such lessons could combine textual, visual, and auditory material. A system in which teachers can prepare such lessons has yet to become popular among Jewish educators, although the technology is available. Creating such lessons would obviously require greater initial investment, but the lessons would also be easily reusable and revisable.

In particular, I would envision lessons which adopt an internet-like navigational structure. In such a structure, many different resources are inter-linked in a non-sequential manner, and the student is able to navigate freely from one to the other. The lessons could incorporate both online and offline material. It is critical that the lessons incorporate a wide range of media, from text and images to audio and video. Material should be presented in many different formats.

There are many benefits to such lessons, starting of course with student motivation, as mentioned in the previous section of this paper. When the student is in control of the lesson flow and goals, he is more motivated to achieve.

Using a wide range of media in such lessons provides additional benefits. First, some material simply requires a particular media for effective presentation. How can the laws of tekiat shofar be taught without accompanying audio? How can the laws of sukka or eruvin be presented without images and a calculator? Before computers, teachers were forced to do without these presentation modes, but today there is no reason that they should not insist on the appropriate tool for the material.

Just as some material requires a particular medium, so do certain students. Those with a learning disability can benefit immeasurably from a lesson where material is presented multiple ways. Some may find text easier, others a graph or a sound. Even students without a particular impairment can benefit from reviewing material in a wide variety of formats.

Student control of the pace of learning is equally important. Those with attention problems may relish the ability to speed up the lesson or break it into installments, while others may wish to slow things down and take time to think.

As the WebQuest and CD models demonstrate, there is a need to create a balance between openness and focus when designing such a lesson. Excessive focus can inhibit student enthusiasm and creativity, while unmitigated openness can lead to a diffuse, meaningless experience. The exact balance may be different for students of different ages, skill levels, or interest levels. In general, older, more skilled, or more motivated students will benefit from greater openness, while younger, weaker, or less motivated ones will require narrower focus. Still, teachers will need to tailor the lesson to their particular audience. For this reason it is important that such lessons be engineered so that teachers can modify and customize them.

As mentioned, the production of such lessons is a major investment of time and, in some cases, money. However, this should be put into perspective. Not every teacher needs to create such a lesson. Rather, these lessons may be produced by companies dedicated to this purpose, as textbooks are produced today. This is similar to the way the JEMM products mentioned in the first part of this paper were produced. The one major improvement which I think could be made upon those products is opening up the lesson to allow each school or teacher to make modifications for their students.

The production of such lessons from scratch requires a new breed of teacher, who’s job description falls somewhere between today’s classroom teachers’ and textbook authors’. A very high degree of creativity and technological familiarity would be required.

However, there are lighter versions of the same basic model which could be implemented fairly easily. Many areas of Jewish study relate to broader issues which are discussed in general information resources. Vast online resources can be drawn upon to help bring such material to life, with relatively little effort or expense. Archaeological information can be included in bible lessons. Medical information can be included in discussions of pikuah nefesh and medical ethics. General philosophy could be compared and contrasted with Jewish philosophical texts. Contemporary financial information can be incorporated into civil law discussions. All one really needs to produce a lesson of this sort is a web browser, a word processor, and a little imagination.

C. Word Processors as Flexible Text Displays[11]

One innovative use for technology which I have not seen widely explored is the use of advanced word-processing features to make reading a more active process. This could be particularly helpful to Jewish education, where a large portion of the texts are in a foreign language, un-vocalized, and un-punctuated. The ability to move a text around and reformat it can help students overcome some of the difficulty involved in reading them.

For example, a student might be given a page of Talmud. The first task would be to break it up into its most general units. The student would complete this task, save his work, and then break up each unit into smaller units. This would continue until the student had fully punctuated the entire text. The following step would be to translate or explain each unit. Such a procedure helps students learn a system for the otherwise daunting task of deciphering an unpunctuated text. By requiring students to save a version of their work after each step, the instructor can help students learn a methodology and identify which steps are difficult for them.

Another scenario where the dynamic capabilities of a word-processor can make a difference is the presentation of a primary text with commentaries. Often, commentaries launch into lengthy tangents, and students have trouble garnering the textual comment which is being made. One method to overcome this is to have students make a table. Each row of the table represents a commentator, and each column represents a disputed phrase from the text. Students are given documents with the full text of each commentary, and must find in each commentator the word or phrase intended to replace the contents of the actual text, as in the example below.

קדושים תהיו
תהיו פרושים מן העריותרש”י
קדש עצמך במותר לךרמב”ן

דבר אל כל עדת בני ישראל ואמרת אליהם תהיו פרושים מן העריות כי פרוש אני ה’ א-להיכם.

A macro can be written which will then automatically render the full text, rewritten according to a given commentary. The relevant phrases are substituted for those in the actual text, and the result is a new text incorporating the ideas of the commentator. The process of filling out such a chart and of seeing a full text with the commentator’s ideas written into it can help students better understand what it is that commentators do, and how and why they disagree.

Flexible text displays can also be used for literary analysis of narrative. Students can be assigned to write headlines for each section of the narrative, and to summarize the theme of each section in their own words. Then, they can make the text into a collapsible or expandable “tree”, as shown:

Collapsed:

Day 1 – God Creates Heaven and Earth, Light and Dark

Day 2 – God Creates The Firmament

Expanded:

Day 1 – God Creates Heaven and Earth, Light and Dark

IN THE beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2  Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters. 3  And God said: ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light. 4  And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. 5  And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.

Day 2 – God Creates The Firmament

6 And God said: ‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.’ 7  And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. 8  And God called the firmament Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.

A key characteristic of both of the previous examples is that students make a useful study aid which they can subsequently use. This helps to make the work seem more worthwhile. In addition, the end result is something novel and dynamic, not just a flat report or set of index cards. Finally, each forces the student to follow a specific methodology of how to interpret a text, and thus imparts the methodology as well as the material.

IV. Further Treatment of Issues Specific to Jewish Education

 

We have explored several basic characteristics of educational technology and presented possible implementations which capitalize upon these characteristics within the realm of Jewish education. We will now address some of the issues of educational philosophy issues of importance to Jewish educators interested in implementing educational technology.

Jewish education has its own set of core values. Among them are a respect for tradition, a reverence for certain texts to the exclusion of others, and obedience to halakhic authority. The Orthodox community, in particular, maintains a level of separation from outsiders, both non-Jews and other types of Jews (an approach  which we will subject to particular scrutiny). Will these values and attitudes be reflected in new, technologically enabled environments? What threats does overzealous modification of  the learning environment present? What benefits particular to Jewish education does technology offer? In this final section, we will explore some of the main areas which may raise concern.

A. The Sacred Nature Of The Text

There are many halakhot which deal with how one must treat sacred texts. One may not place a mundane object on top of a holy book. Such books may not be brought into a restroom, nor may they be stored in a location where they might be damaged. One designates a particular container to hold such books, and disposes of them in a dignified manner when they become unfit for use. One may not erase the name of God, wherever it may be written.

Historically, there has been a tendency to extend many of these rules from actual Torah scrolls fit for ritual use to all Jewish religious texts, even printed ones. The logic underlying this tendency is self evident. More than just requiring an assortment of technical behavior, these rules reflect and inculcate an attitude of respect for the holy texts. It was inconceivable that Jews would treat their holy books disrespectfully, be those books in whatever format they might be.

By digitizing texts, we eliminate the physical manifestation of the text and thereby make these rules inapplicable, or at least very difficult to apply. Consideration needs to be given as to how these rules might be applied to electronic media. Halakhic questions about deleting files with religious texts, and even taking Palm Pilots containing religious texts into a restroom[12] have been asked frequently, but no clear guidelines have been established regarding them.

While purists would point out that these rules are technically inapplicable to computer files, it is crucial that some form of behavior be established to protect the sanctity of digitized religious texts. The rules governing how one treats a religious book are what give the book its holiness in the eyes of the masses. Even those who do not actually read the texts can understand their import based on these rules. How will a student feel about Gemara if he reads his Gemara on the same screen used for checking sports scores, or on the same Palm Pilot where he stores his phone numbers? Electronic religious texts need to be treated in some special manner which will demonstrate their sacred status.

B. Sequential and Random Access and Information Literacy

One problem with information in the technological environment is that access to it is random, not sequential. A search of a database can return all kinds of texts, all taken out of context. To be fair, a book is already a step in this direction when compared with a scroll – one can open to any page without having to scroll past the rest of the text. However, digital texts are more extreme – one constantly finds himself reading small selections from much larger works, often with little sense of the nature of those works.

Jewish learning, especially talmud or halakha study, is already prone to this difficulty to a certain extent. Preparation for typical talmud lesson will require a student to read short selections from 10 or so different books, written by different people in different time periods. Often, the selections will be truncated so as to present the particular idea relevant to the lesson. As a result, students often may miss levels of meaning which would become apparent were they to read each selection in context. Over the course of a lifetime, this has drastic ramifications. There are probably many yeshiva students, for instance, who have read most of Maimonides’ Mishne Torah, but have never read even one consecutive chapter at a sitting.

Technology encourages students to read in this manner. When a student searches an information resource for a particular fact, he is presented with a list of short snippets, bereft of context, each of which is relevant to his query. How likely is the student to really understand the contextual meaning of each snippet?

The result can be a student who knows many details from a vast number of books, but has no sense of what characterizes any of the books. When dealing with printed books the situation was somewhat better. A student could not look something up in the Shulhan Arukh without getting at least a general sense of how the book is organized, what commentaries are written about it, and how long it is. All of this information would be learned subconsciously while taking the book off the shelf and leafing through it. A student whose main access to text is through a computer, though, will not get this type of information.

There is also the issue of language. Some authors are more terse, others more wordy. For some authors, a particular word holds a narrow meaning, while for another this same word may have a more general one. To understand these subtleties, one must read large selections from each author.

All of these issues relate to the notion of information literacy elaborated earlier in this paper. To be Judaic-Information-Literate is to be able to have a general sense of what books are available and what characterizes each book.  It is the ability to infer the context from the snippet when possible, and to know when it is necessary to see the full context for proper understanding. It is to have  an ear which can detect the voice of different writers, different genres, and different generations.

One practical way to address this issue is to require students to read large sections of texts sequentially. Although this will not showcase the search and retrieval capabilities of the computer, it will help the student develop a sense of the proportions of the text. A student who has read even one short tractate of Talmud from start to finish understands what a tractate is. A student who has read several chapters of a biblical book in one sitting can get a sense of the language and style.

The interface by which students access the texts can also have a major impact on their perception. It is important that when a text is displayed, the interface makes clear which book this text is from, and how this text is categorized within this book. It should also give a sense of the size of the book and what type of book it is. All this should be presented through visual clues.

For instance, all biblical texts could be rendered in green, while all talumdic texts are rendered in blue. All commentaries could be rendered in a different font than primary texts. When displaying a text, a heading or sidebar could make clear where this text is from. Using this same sidebar as the tool using which students select the text to be viewed reinforces their sense of each texts size and heirarchy.

The word processor tempts teachers to select only the exact sentence relevant to their lesson. It is better to resist this temptation, and instead present students with whole sections. Better to print the whole chapter and underline or bold the relevant portion, than to print only the relevant portion out of context. Technology allows us this luxury – we are not limited by the size of the page or by our mercy for trees.

 

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